The Flags of Memory

Facebook politely reminds me that I have memories.  On April 28th last year I posted #FUCO, inspired by the Daily Show’s effort to get the Democrats and Republicans to F#$%ing Cooperate. Two years ago I celebrated being a scant three days from traveling to China to meet my daughter. Three years ago I posted Tom Waits’ cover of “Somewhere.”  Four years ago, two articles from the New York Times’ caught enough of my eye that I reposted them. Day after day, another batch of the past is just a click away. But all I have to do is turn my head, and I can glimpse the shades of things past.

I am surrounded by memories.  Even the most ordinary thing in my household triggers one or a dozen memories.  The computer speakers on my desk top are the speakers that I had in my attic office, are the speakers that I had in my apartment by the beach, are the speakers that were in my apartment in Roland Park, are the speakers I bought when I lived on Fair Oaks Avenue.  I can see them on a desk in each place, and around that desk old rooms organize themselves, and around those rooms entire buildings take shape, and around those buildings, streets spread out into cities populated by people whose faces are just a turn to the left or right from the chair in which I sit. I feel as if I could start a conversation with these memories just as easily as I begin one with the people who walk just outside my office window just this very moment.

I am not sure if other people experience memories in this same way.  It’s not as if I have an excellent memory; the rules of German grammar eluded me when I was in high school.  But I knew the Constitution by Section and Article almost at first glance.  And I drove all over the suburbs of Philadelphia without getting lost as soon as I had a driver’s license—all based on my childhood memories of being in cars. Years later, when I traveled to Maine after a twenty year absence, I did the same there.  I cannot dredge a memory up, but feel wrapped in a thousand wispy scarves each one peeling away to reveal some past me surrounded by a past world, which is also the present me surrounded by the present world.

Some people must be able to store their memories in boxes in an attic, and that out of sight and out of mind, their memories don’t regularly come crashing down off the shelves.  Or they put one or two—or more—on the mantle in the living room, or on a hidden altar in their homes. And those memories take precedence over the ones in the attic. Maybe I am unable to select, maybe I need them all, maybe I do not know which memory will hold the key to some unforeseen puzzle.

I guess that someone who felt more melancholic would feel ensnared by all these connections. I have moments when I would like to be cut free from them, when the sadness of a particular skein feels overwhelming, and the sadness overpowers all the other threads. At different times of my life I have combated those feelings either by playing a simple solitaire game that I learned from a college friend, or by getting in my car and driving until the roads became strange, or by playing a video game for the seventh or eighth time.

Repetition dulls the brightness of the connections, and I have simple repeated rituals (peanut butter and jelly for lunch nearly every day) that offer some respite from the densely colored warp and weave of the past.  Just this, for now, before the return. And then the glorious return of how many days—twenty thousand?—and how many moments?  This, writing, also limits the connections—the focus required to write narrows my vision to this word, this letter, this comma.  And yet the inspirations to write are all the peripheral visions that are always just a distracted head turn away.

I also turn to the new.  I remember those late night drives—in a brown Volkswagen Rabbit with the stereo turned up beyond reason, listening to John Adams’ Shaker Loops, or Laurie Anderson’s United States, or the Talking Heads’ Remain in Light—which became longer and later in my twenties as I drove farther and farther west, traveling on back roads from Philadelphia all the way to Harrisburg.  I came home, because as far as I went I never forgot my cat.  I returned home to my apartment on City Line Avenue more to tend him than to prepare for a job.  Now, with four cats and a daughter, the journeys away must be curtailed.  I must drive in.

And so in I go, trailing a billowing cloud of memories like flags from countries that I have not claimed, but have claimed me. Turn this way, they insist.  This is where to go.  This is the key.


Story Telling

Two weeks ago I gave a sermon at my church about what I learned from my father about fatherhood for Father’s Day. It went well. Afterwards some people told me what a good story teller I was, which was nice. I’m sure a few left thinking what a gasbag I was, which is fine too. I was asked whether I got so wrapped up in the story that I forgot that people were listening. Not really, after all, the whole point is to get everyone to focus their attention. Here are some things I did that I hope made that more likely.

I told the story about what I learned from him about fatherhood. I did this by relating things that had happened between him and me in our life. When I “wrote” it, I observed the “rule of three”: the big story (the sermon) had three separate main incidents. Why three? I draw an analogy from geometry when I explain this to my students: it takes three points to define a plane in space, and without that plane, we have nothing on which to stand. I’m sure there are corollaries to this rule: two points make a line, which is only good for tightrope walkers; four points make a solid which will block the reader. Besides, I only had 15-20 minutes: three is enough.

There was plenty of connective tissue to get from one incident to the next. When one shares a story from one’s life, it can be easy to forget to make the connections because they seem so obvious to whoever lived that particular life. I was cognizant of the fact that I wasn’t simply telling my story, I was telling a story based on things that happened to me. My life was the evidence–I still had to make the case.

When delivered it, I put my written notes aside, and followed the outline I had practiced over and over during the month I had to prepare. This is not a useful strategy for everyone. First, not everyone is used to speaking in public, and a strong written text can be an enormous support. Second, one needs to practice a speech to be delivered extemporaneously: the odds of ramble increase exponentially without a firmly rehearsed structure. The advantage was that I could listen to the hundred or so people who were listening to me while I delivered the sermon. I knew what I had to say; I didn’t know how people would hear it. I was able to tinker as I spoke to fit the way people were listening.

Did I end up leaving things out? Sure, I always over-prepare. Was it perfect? No, but what is? Did I get to my conclusion? I think so. It felt done. And now on to the next story.